Fears HSE spot checks will be latest outsourcing ‘disaster’

The government’s “disastrous” record on outsourcing has left school leaders fearing the new coronavirus health and safety spot checks might “fall short”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is making 15-minute phone calls to check schools in England have risk assessments in place and “appropriate arrangements” to reduce the risk posed by Covid-19. Inspectors could make follow-up visits if the call “raises concerns”.

However, to make sure it has capacity, the regulator has outsourced the initial calls to the private company Civica.

James Bowen, the director of policy at school leaders’ union NAHT, said the government’s record on outsourcing was a concern.

“We know that some elements of the testing and tracing system have been outsourced to other companies,” he said. “This is fine if it improves the response, but as we know in these cases, the results have been pretty disastrous.”

He also pointed to the Department for Education’s use of Edenred to deliver the national free school meal voucher scheme, which was quickly overwhelmed by demand, leaving families without food.

Hayley Dunn, the business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said outsourced callers were not health and safety experts and for the most part “must be working to a script”. 

HSE is carrying out spot checks to review a school’s measures taken for reopening, and to minimise spread of Covid-19.

A spokesperson for the regulator told Schools Week it was an “experienced third-party contractor”. The spot checkers had received “training on the Covid secure guidance”.

The questionnaire they used had also been put together by HSE experts.

“The calls’ aims are to identify if there are any areas of concern and assess if the risks outlined in the Covid secure guidance are being managed effectively. 

“The calls are not about the more traditional health and safety practices of the school; they are concentrated on understanding and implementing the necessary controls outlined by the schools Covid secure guidance.”

But if there were concerns after the initial call, the school wouldl be referred for “further intervention”, which might include a visit. 

Bowen added: “Because the calls will not necessarily be conducted by fully trained HSE inspectors, this may reduce the quality of the information that is shared. 

“We are also worried that whilst they are on the call, schools will not be able to enquire with inspectors or get guidance about the measures they have put in place. The data gathered by non-expert call handlers could be of limited use to HSE when it is processed.”

James Bowen

NAHT has sought assurances from the HSE that their subcontracting efforts “will not fall short”. 

Civica focuses on public sector work. It helped Spelthorne Borough Council on the outskirts of London handle call volumes during the pandemic.

It also uses health and safety software to process data to “reduce workplace incidents” as well as to control risks and track actions.

Civica declined to comment.

HSE said it assured the calls by analysing the responses recorded, but also through inspectors’ visits to a “selection of premises to ratify the information given on the call”.

Jane Day, the head of the Good Shepherd Primary School in Croydon, south London, said her phone call was not challenging. It seemed like “one more hurdle to go through”.

“I don’t know if I had not answered sufficiently, would they have prompted me more? So, I was left thinking ‘well, I think I’ve answered them all correctly’. 

“[The call handler] was pleasant and she wasn’t making me feel anxious in any way, but it just seemed to be one more thing to do in a busy day.”

In a bulletin published earlier this month, the HSE said enforcement could follow if inspectors encountered serious risks. However, it anticipated advice would be enough to resolve any issues.